Henbane, (botanical name, Hyoscyamus niger) belonging to the Solanaceae family, usually grows up to a height of two feet and bears big, light green leaves that have an oval shape with acutely toothed periphery. The stem and leaves of this herb are covered with minute hair-like bristles. Henbane produces blossoms during the period of July-August. The shape of the flowers resembles bells and they grow to about one-fourth inch in length. The petals have a mustard-yellow hue with purplish-brown veins and throats. The seeds of henbane are sheltered in capsules or pods that are about half-an-inch in length. The plant obtained its common name ‘henbane' way back in 1265. While the source of the word still remains vague, but it is believed that the word "hen" might have initially denoted death, instead of mentioning about chickens.
Traditionally, henbane has been an ingredient of the witches' brew and, hence, the herb has rightly suffered an ominous reputation since the pre-historic days. The sedative alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine are all obtained from this horrible, bad-odour weed. It is important to note that every part of henbane is venomous. Ingestion of henbane by humans may cause a number of common side effects, including dilated pupils, hallucinations, flushed skin and restiveness. In addition, ingestion of this toxic plant may also result in other side effects, such as vomiting, convulsions, hypertension, tachycardia (abnormally rapid heartbeat), ataxia (lack of muscle coordination) and hyperpyrexia (unusually high fever).
In earlier times, people employed henbane in the form of a sedative or tranquilizer to help alleviate spasms and pain. However, deciding on a safe dose of this herb has always been a difficult job and, hence, medical practitioners had virtually left the herb alone for a long time. For John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, henbane poisoning was something similar to alcohol poisoning, as in both cases the victim suffered from state of unconsciousness that was followed by comatose sleep. Mashed leaves of henbane were supposedly used externally in the form of a dressing to alleviate the pain caused by rheumatism. According to an advice in an Anglo-Saxon medical text, when an individual is unable to sleep, he/ she should blend henbane seed and the juices extracted from garden mint and shake the combination before daubing the head with it, and this will help to induce sleep.
Here is a word of caution for all those using or intend to use henbane. This herb may not only prove to be toxic, but can even be fatal when used in low doses in animals. However, it is interesting to note that all animals are not vulnerable to henbane. For instance, the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species, counting Cabbage Moth, consume henbane and remain unaffected.
Leaves, flowering tops, seeds.
As a therapeutic herb, henbane has been in use for a very long period and it has been cultivated extensively with a view to fulfill the requirement for its usage. While all the parts of this herb can be used for medicinal purpose, the leaves and seeds of henbane are especially useful. This herb possesses gently diuretic, antispasmodic, mild analgesic, hypnotic, hallucinogenic, narcotic, pupil-dilating and tranquilizing attributes. While the leaves of the herb are gathered during the second year of the plant's existence, when it is in full blossom, the seeds are collected when they are completely ripened. When the leaves are mashed, they exude a potent narcotic smell, something comparable to that of tobacco. Hyosciamia forms the active constituent of henbane, although all familiar medical preparations with the herb are known by the common name Hyoscyamus.
Generally, the extensive use of this herb is found in medications, such as analgesics and sedatives. It is particularly employed to alleviate pain in the urinary tract owing to kidney stones. In addition, this herb is also prescribed to ease abdominal cramps. The antispasmodic and sedative actions of henbane make the herb useful for treating Parkinson's disease symptoms, alleviating shuddering and firmness, which is quite common during the initial stages of this ailment. In addition, the herb has been employed in the form of a ‘burning' powder or a cigarette to cure asthma and bronchitis. It is also used topically in the form of an oil to provide relief from excruciating conditions, for instance rheumatism, sciatica and even neuralgia. Henbane is useful is lessening the excessive secretion of mucus and saliva along with other digestive juices. Similar to its close relative, the deadly nightshade, this herb also dilates the pupils. Hyoscine is among the active elements enclosed by henbane and it is occasionally employed in the form of an alternative for opium. Generally, hyoscine is used in the form of a pre-operative anesthetic as well as in formulations intended for treating motion sickness.
Although henbane is a potent narcotic, unless it is used inappropriately and imprudently, it may be regarded to be just fairly venomous. Compared to opium, henbane is more effective as a sedative since it does not result in constipation. It is primarily used to induce sleep and get rid of unbalanced nervous actions. This herb is ideal for treating rheumatism, asthma, gout, neuralgia, persistent coughs, exasperations of the urinary tract and other conditions. The leaves of henbane are used in formulations that are applied externally to treat ulcers and distension of the glands. It may be noted that under no circumstance should the herb be employed without consulting an experienced and qualified practitioner of herbal medication.
If the leaves of henbane are left scattered inside the house, it will repel mice.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Henbane is indigenous to southern regions of Europe and western parts of Asia. Currently, the herb is found growing throughout central and western regions of Europe as well as North and South America, where it has been naturalized over the years. In several regions of Europe, counting England, henbane is grown for medicinal purposes. It is also the same in North America. The leaves and flowers of the herb are collected soon after it has started blossoming during the first year for the annual plants and the second year of the biennial variety of the species.
The high demand for henbane for therapeutic uses makes it essential for people to cultivate the herb, as the variety growing naturally is not in sufficient supply. Henbane grows easily in nearly all types of soils - on chalky slopes and in sandy places along the sea coasts. This plant thrives well when it is cultivated in rich loamy soil.
However, as far as its growth is concerned, henbane is very whimsical or unreliable. In fact, the seeds of this herb have a propensity to remain dormant for one season or even more, often refusing to sprout at all in a number of places and the crop may also vary with no obvious grounds whatsoever. Occasionally, the plants simply die in patches. When grown is some areas close to the marine regions, henbane can be grown very easily. This plant needs a light, reasonably fertile and properly drained soil for flourishing. In addition, it also requires an open and sunlit location. However, the plants do not need much consideration, except ensuring that no weed grows on the ground.
Henbane is generally propagated by its seeds, which need to be sown in an open area during May or immediately when the ground becomes warm. The seeds should be sown very shallowly in rows of two that are 2.5 feet away from each other. Later, the seedlings are pricked and transplanted very sparsely in rows that have a distance of at least two feet between them, since these plants cannot endure transplanting properly. Therefore, it is advisable that you reserve only the larger seedlings, particularly those having a bluish tinge. The soil where the crop is to be grown ought to have adequate manure and it is important to keep the soil damp till the germination of the seeds. In addition, you need to ensure that the soil is also moist in May and June of their first season of growth. It is also advisable that you should sow the biennial henbane seeds when they ripen naturally, especially during August, in a permeable soil.
Apart from this, you also need to ensure that the soil should never be sodden, particularly during the first winter of the plants' growth. In fact, if the ground is water-logged, water often goes up to the stalks during wet seasons. On the other hand, drought as well as frosts in the later part of winter generally inhibit the growth of the plants making them produce flowers prematurely.
Moreover, you ought to take adequate care while selecting the seed - often commercially available henbane seed is dried in kilns and in such cases, they become useless for propagating the plant. To facilitate germination of henbane seeds, they need to be soaked in water for a minimum period of 24 hours prior to their sowing. When the seeds are soaked in water, unfertile seeds float on the surface of the water and, thus, they are eliminated. The completely ripened seeds have a grey color and if you find seeds having yellowish or brown color, you ought to discard them, since they are yet to ripen. Once the seeds have matured fully, let them to dry out. Subsequently, sort out the seeds according to their size and only retain the larger seeds for germination.
As henbane seeds are quite small and light weight, while sowing them, mix the seeds well with fine arid soil. Since the survival rate of henbane seedling is very low, it is advisable that you maintain a reserve of seedlings in a box or bed with a view to fill the spaces left by the dead seedlings. However, it may be noted that the success rate of transplanting henbane seedlings is also very poor.
As the young henbane plants are often destroyed by various insects, it often becomes hard to grow this species. There are times when the entire foliage is obliterated by Pegomyia Hyoscyami, leaf-mining fly larvae, and eventually, the crop becomes useless just within a week. Moreover, when the large autumnal leaves of the henbane plants of the biennial type decay during the first year, the big terminal bud is usually obliterated by any of the several species of macro-lepidopterous caterpillars that conceal themselves in the soil. Therefore, it is advisable that you cover the crown or bud of the plant immediately when the leaves decay with the soil mixed with naphthalene or soot with a view to shelter them from being damaged by various insects.
In addition to insects, henbane plants may also decay due to floods in winter provided they are cultivated on ground level. In effect, potato pests prefer the bristly leaves of henbane and, hence, leave a potato patch with a view to survive on the henbane plants. In case there is mildew on the foliage during the summer, you need to dust the plants using powdered sulfur or spray the plants using a solution prepared with half ounce of liver of sulfur and two gallons of water.
When you want to conserve henbane seeds with the purpose of using them to propagate the plant, it is advisable that you sever the top portion of the flowering tops in the early stage of blossoming and leave merely about six capsules containing the seeds to mature fully. In effect, the cut flowering shoots may be dried out and sold separately. Cutting the top of the flowering shoots will make certain that the capsules only contain robust seeds, which are likely to produce the biennial variety of this species. It may be noted that poor or weaker seeds are likely to produce less vigorous and important annual variety of henbane.
Chemical analysis of the henbane plant has revealed that it encloses about 0.045 per cent to 0.14 per cent tropane alkaloids, particularly hyoscine and hyoscyamine. In effect, practically all plants belonging to the Solanaceae family contain hyoscine and hyoscyamine, but henbane contains them in comparatively higher amounts and this is responsible for a more explicitly tranquilizing or narcotic action of henbane in comparison to its other relatives, such as deadly nightshade and thorn apple.
Collection and harvesting
To a great extent, the effectiveness of henbane depends on the time when the leaves of the herb are harvested. It is ideal to collect the leaves when the henbane plant is in full blossom. In case of the biennial variety of the plants, people generally have a preference for the second year compared to the plants in their first year. In effect, plants that are still in their first year are not as much moist and fetid, offer a lesser amount of extractive and are considered to be less effective therapeutically. While the leaves of the biennial plants are harvested in June or during the first week of July, those of the annual variety are collected in August. When the herb is required in fresh condition, it needs to be cut during the first week of June, since the leaf-mining pests invade the leaves by the second week of June, leaving behind just pieces of the white epidermis.
Henbane needs to be dried out with extreme caution, since the attributes of this herb are likely to be obliterated in great measure if it is kept in a damp condition for a prolonged period.
When the fresh leaves of henbane are bruised, they exude a potent, unpleasant narcotic smell, fairly similar to that of tobacco. The fresh leaves have a mucilaginous (soft, moist and viscid) and to some extent an acrid flavour. However, to a great extent, this typical smell of the leaves fade away when they are dried, but then the bitter flavour becomes more predominant. When the dried out leaves are put into fire, they burn producing a crackling sound, which is attributed to the nitrate content in the plants. Simultaneously, the burning henbane leaves also exude a potent smell.
Seeds of henbane ought to be collected during August either for therapeutic purposes or for drying them in a kiln. However, the treatment of the seeds makes them ineffective for culture and it is important to dry the seeds in the sun if they are to be used for propagation. The capsules or pods enclosing the seeds ought to be collected before their lids split open. Subsequently, the seeds are shaken out and dried out in the sun.